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Sticking with It: Meeting the Challenges of Online Learning

Enrollment in online courses and programs continues to increase. A recent study published by The Sloan Consortium found that over 6 million higher education students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall semester of 2010. The numbers reported in this annual survey have continuously increased over recent years and the prediction is for ongoing growth. Retention rates, however, tell another story. According to US News and World Report, in 2009 "the largest online schools vary wildly in their ability to retain students, though the averages among the largest 10 online institutions are below the national averages for all schools – traditional and online – among both full-time and part-time students." 

Student retention is a primary concern of all involved in online education programs – not only important to students, but also to instructors and the institutions providing the programs. Statistics related to course and program completion are carefully tracked and often considered as a measure of a program or institution's level of quality in terms of academic rigor and student support, as well as student satisfaction. From an administrative perspective, there is also an issue of revenue involved as institutions seek to attract new students who fully complete their programs and in the process pay tuition and fees.

Institution administrators and faculty members are engaged in research related to student retention and making efforts to support online students through initiatives such as:

  • Student orientations to help prepare new students for online learning environments and what to expect from the online learning experience,
  • Additional services and resources such as tutoring, writing centers, and accessible librarians and advisors, and
  • Online community development in which students and instructors are prepared to actively engage in discussion and activities that enhance the learning experience.  

Persistence is a valuable trait for all students, especially those learning in online environments, moving them to continue their studies even when the going gets tough. But how exactly does one persist? As an online student, your efforts can make the difference in completion or withdrawal, directly impacting your success and learning achievements. Your success involves more than the work of your school and instructors. Review the strategies listed below and consider how each one might help you to persist as an online student.


Before You Enroll


A little preparation can go a long way. It may be tempting to just dive into online learning, but there are a few things you can do to make sure you are ready for the experience before you get started.

  • Weigh your options. Compare the schools and online programs you are considering and include information about retention rates in your research. Keep in mind that there is a wide variety of factors that may influence why and individual student may decide to withdraw from a course and dig a little deeper to find out more about student satisfaction, learning support resources, and instructor communication methods.  
  • Know what to expect. Complete an honest assessment of the time you have available to participate in an online course and your level of commitment to becoming a successful student. A study of community college students found that time management issues were a primary reason why they withdrew early from online courses. Ask for access to course demonstrations and tours, and seek out alumni and current students through social networks (e.g. like Facebook and LinkedIn) to get a better idea of what taking online courses will be like.
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Are you self-disciplined? Self-motivated? A good time manager? Assess your current skills and characteristics against those considered important to online learning success. Identify specific areas in which you could improve and take the initiative to develop better skills and stronger habits in these areas. 

As an Active Student


Once you've decided to become an online learner, embrace the opportunity and put your best foot forward. Take the initiative to do your best in each of your courses.

  • Engage in the learning process. Be a full participant in each course. Complete the reading assignments and actively participate in discussions. Reflect on your learning throughout the process and make connections between your studies and past or current work experiences. Successful completion of your initial courses will make a difference in how you approach later courses.
  • Get to know your classmates. You may be surprised to find that other students in your courses, especially early courses in your program, are experiencing the same frustrations that you are and have a lot of the same questions. Online student peers can provide each other with a great deal of support, which has been found to positively influence online student persistence. 
  • Get to know your instructors. A 2010 study from the University of Illinois at Springfield states that "Central to online and on-campus learning is the relationship between the faculty and the students." Online instructors are expected to serve as both content experts in the subjects they are teaching and facilitators of the learning process and the online learning environment. They have the skills and resources necessary to help you find the assistance you need to complete your courses. Take advantage of opportunities to talk with your instructors and ask them questions through various communications channels, such as email and virtual office hours.
  • Revisit your goals. Don't lose sight of why you have decided to become an online student. Whether it is for personal enrichment or for career change or advancement, take the time to periodically review your goals and the role your online courses play in helping you achieve them.
  • Review and revise your efforts. Developing good study habits takes time and practice. Allow yourself some latitude to experiment with new strategies and decide which ones work best for you. Try out different schedules and techniques, and keep only the ones that are helpful.

There are many variables to consider when evaluating why students choose to complete an online course or program, or withdraw early. Some are under your control and others are not. Prepare yourself for the experience so you will be fully engaged in the process as an online learner. 

January 12th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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